“This is a chorus or community…this is a new way to write a pantoum.” An interview with Chris Green

Interviewed by Donald G. Evans

Chris Green stumbled into life as a poet by pure accident, having spent most of his academic career and intellectual life avoiding it. Milton, Pope, and other classical poets daunted him, so running away seemed the shrewdest strategy. Then, in 1994, Green found himself struggling to write a long essay about his grandfather who was a Mexican immigrant and miner. His wife noticed how much he’d condensed his language, and simply said: make it a poem.

American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans, the fourth anthology Green has edited since that day in 1994, is set to be launched September 28. Green is now fully ensconced as an admired and important poet in Chicago and beyond, and he has authored four poetry collections: The Sky Over Walgreens, Epiphany School, Résumé, and Everywhere West. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, the New York Times, Court Green, Prairie Schooner and other notable publications. Green has also taught in the department of English at DePaul University for the past decade.

American Gun is the sixth title put out by Big Shoulders Books, which Green co-founded in 2012. In it, Green uses a group pantoum form to address and explore the enormous gun violence problem in Chicago. The hundred contributors are all, or were, Chicagoans, and have experienced this city in its deep, complicated webs. The poets responded to Green’s challenge to write a community poem, each writer building on the previous writer’s stanza.

Big Shoulders Books publishes work written by and about Chicagoans “whose voices might not otherwise be shared.” The books are given free of charge to anybody who requests a copy. This latest title, replete with study questions in the back, seems destined to populate classrooms in Chicago and around the nation. Chris calls it an “ongoing mediation,” and the digital version of the poem is on the Big Shoulders website where people are encouraged to add a stanza of their own.

I was able to speak with Green over the phone June 11 to discuss his new book. We talked about everything from gun violence to poetic sensibilities to the community of artists involved in this project. In American Gun you can hear real people rising up, against, through, and over the cold statistics. These real people are decorated poets with ears attuned to the language of the streets, they are students—a group of teens from Young Chicago Authors, and they are relatively inexperienced young writers from Chicago’s South and West sides. In all cases, they are citizens experiencing gun violence firsthand.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Evans: This is a poem about Chicago gun violence, insistent, at every turn, on keeping the city at its forefront. Yet, it’s called American Gun, not Chicago Gun. I thought it interesting that Alex Kotlowitz, in his extraordinary nonfiction book An American Summer, likewise decided to go broad in his title, as though our city embodies truths much bigger in scope. You explain your rationale in the introduction, but perhaps you can elaborate a bit on this choice.

Green: Before the pandemic, it was really the epidemic of gun violence across the country that had my attention. I organized a group called the Poetic Justice League, a collective of poets addressing various social issues; I asked poets in groups of four to write pantoums [a poetic form where every line is repeated twice] about our national gun violence. The school shootings had been particularly on my mind, the mass shootings around the country, when that collective took shape. I thought with Chicago’s gun problem, its shamefully high shootings year after year, perhaps a single pantoum was in order—the Chicago police confiscated 10,000 guns in 2019…God knows how many are actually out there. Many guns bleed into our city from other states. Ultimately, the problem is with our national gun laws, and with our historical disenfranchisement and segregation of low income and Black communities. Which is an American issue.

You, in collaboration with Michele Morano and Miles Harvey, founded Big Shoulders Books. Your mission is specific, namely to give voice to underrepresented communities and positively impact movements toward social justice and equality. Your titles are selective, less than one per year. This is the press’s sixth book, and the second you’ve edited. Why did this one motivate you to completion?

It was a unique challenge. Instead of asking for a hundred separate poems, as might be the case in a traditional anthology, I had the idea of a single poem by a communal voice. It was a unique effort to wake up every morning to move the pantoum along. What was motivating for me was the important subject of the poem and to see the poem’s voice take shape over time. Each poet had a day to respond with a new stanza. It was done as an “exquisite corpse,” a writing technique where you see only the stanza that comes before yours, not the whole piece itself. I watched the poem evolve over the course of two years. I wasn’t sure what we were making until the end. It was like navigating a body of water that kept changing direction. Each new wave of poetry would work its way in and out.

Gun violence, and the quest to end it, especially here in Chicago, is an important topic. And it has been explored, it is being explored, in long-form journalism, daily news reports, novels, short stories, plays. There are a handful of exceptional works that have been produced on this topic. What inspired you to take on this subject in poetry? Was there something about the form that you thought would bring a kind of clarity or insight that perhaps we don’t get from other sources?

Allen Ginsberg said that poetry is “the rhythmic articulation of feeling.” The news bits and data about shootings make them feel distant, remote. I think poetry humanizes what might otherwise be repressed or dehumanized. It personalizes and universalizes what might otherwise seem impersonal and occasional.

You say that you chose the pantoum form because the repetitive structure mirrors the way a semi-automatic weapon fires, and also because it is symbolic of the endless cycle of Chicago shootings. Did you hope to hear those elements play out, lyrically, in the poem? Or was this more a way to organize a collaboration among a hundred different poets?

The repetition brings its own emotion. There is a sermon-like quality to the repetition. I think the poem is actually much stronger read aloud, where the human voice can add nuance and tonality to the repetition and the lines. The pantoum is not necessarily meant to be written by a group. But this is a chorus or community…this is a new way to write a pantoum, a new way of addressing an important issue like gun violence. We’re experiencing the power of the communal voice in the current moment of protest. It’s individual poets, but also a choir.

You call this a communal poem; I’ve heard the term chain, and seen the form used in both poetry and prose, essentially authors building off one another’s lines. The results, in my opinion, usually reflect the form: a bunch of bits and pieces that sometimes but not always hang together and ultimately are only loosely unified. But you seem to have had a definitive vision for this poem, a result in mind. How, through your various choices, including contributors, were you able to nudge this book into being something wholly realized?

I’ve had similar qualms about group writing; it seems like the result is inevitably messy. Indeed, some poets didn’t want to participate in the pantoum because they didn’t want the mess of depending on other poets. I would sometimes suggest edits before sending a stanza to another poet—I wanted to make sure what we were making was poetry, but more than that, I wanted to maintain the voices of the individual poets. The poem does sound differently in its various parts. Part of the charm of the poem is the variety of poetries.

It’s difficult to talk about gun violence in a non-political context. This poem, though, almost entirely avoids politics. There are references to family, and community, and religion, but not so much politics. Did you, as editor, impose this rule on the contributors, or did they organically search for other truths within the subject?

I didn’t impose any strictures. The prompt was this is a pantoum about gun violence. Go! It was almost like a psychological experiment. What came back were ideas of God’s absence, natural imagery that’s been corrupted, families broken…certain ideas and images worked their way into the poem and others didn’t. There hasn’t been a lot of political writing in contemporary poetry. My feeling is that many American poets have been afraid that if they write about politics, it won’t be poetry. I asked [Irish poet] Desmond Egan about this one time. He didn’t understand my concern. He thinks politics are just a part of everyday life and as apt for poetry as any subject.

What do you think? Do politics have a place in poetry?

Yes, definitely. Though it can be challenging for a poem to respond topically and immediately, like a piece of journalism, and still be poetry. But it’s worth it to try. Especially in times like these when it feels like the whole world is on fire.

What does it mean to our reading experience that the subject of gun violence is not couched in political rhetoric?

Politics has failed us. Ultimately, how we feel about gun violence and violence in general goes beyond politics. What’s at issue is our humanity. It feels like it’s something that’s more carnal than ideological. What does it mean to have children killed randomly in your city over and over? It feels more than political. The best poems go beyond duality—real poetry doesn’t take sides in a prosaic, pedantic, or political way.

The roster of contributors is impressive. You’ve rounded up a large group of poets that give voice to different cultures within our bigger Chicago culture. Anybody familiar with the Chicago poetry scene will recognize a good number of these authors, some, like Ed Roberson, Edward Hirsch, and Haki Madhubuti, who are nationally prominent. What did you set out to do when identifying and lining up contributors?

In general, I organized the poem to move from the city’s more established poets to its younger poets from Chicago’s South and West Sides…I wanted to give young people the final word. Chicago has many different communities of poets. The poem starts with my community, but I tried to reach poets I didn’t know, poets with different experiences, of different ages, races, and ethnicities. When I found a new poet, I would ask for suggestions of other poets and I proceeded to invite folks in that way. It was satisfying to find and hear great lines from poets new to me. It was also fascinating to get lines from poets that I know because they also sounded unfamiliar—they were reaching for a new voice—a more formal, elegiac, memorializing, ancient voice.

Most challenging to me was finding the younger poets. Kevin Coval put me in contact with a good number of Young Chicago Authors. As I said, I reserved the last quarter of the poem for young poets from the South and West Sides. I also went out of my way to find some teen poets who attend alternative high schools in the city (statistically, they experience the most gun violence), and I asked them to write the final words in the poem. Indeed, some of their stanzas are my favorites—their writing is somehow both brutally direct yet lyrical.

For instance, the 95th stanza by Alisha Thurman:

Bullets fly that have no names 
I pray for my city because it’s not the same
Bodies drop six feet below
People are dead because the way bullets flow

The poem is structured as a narrative, but reads more like a song. Its strength, I believe, is in how the images play off and reinforce one another, but also in the way they divert. Talk a bit about the dynamic of the poem as a whole and the way the parts come together.

I started the poem with a scene, another shooting in the streets and the sirens converging. Interestingly and unexpectedly, the poem ends with the exact same scene. James Lofton, from Community Christian Alternative Academy, wrote that final stanza. I didn’t advise him to echo the poem’s beginning; it just happened by chance. Ultimately, the poem was beyond my control. It feels like it moves in waves. What happens is that a poet will have something in their two new lines that is so unique or so perverse, that it starts a whole new wave of sound, sense, or shape. For instance, Avery Young’s lines are very long, so you see in the book that the pages are turned, because we couldn’t format the long lines in a traditional way. He also introduced the name and circumstance of an actual person who was killed, so the subsequent poets continued his tragic and personalized trajectory.

The young poets, especially the group from Chicago’s alternative high schools, are backloaded. The tenor of the poem really changes once their voices enter the fray. The writing feels raw and personal, the quest for justice even more urgent. What made you decide to feature their parts toward the end, and how do you like the effect?

When I reached into these alternative schools, it did open up the poem in new ways. Until that point, everybody was skilled or experienced in some way, even the YCA writers had been praised as poets. But the whole poem was really an exercise in letting go of control, being open to possibility; that’s what a poem does to a reader, opens up possibilities. I had to let the poem be vulnerable to change. I think these young people wrote their stanzas to be spoken…the poem begins to follow a rhyme scheme for the first time. At the very end, the poem begins to flow roughly, innocently…and since it’s young people that are so often shot in Chicago, the final turn in the poem feels sadly most poetic.

Big Shoulders Books give away copies of their titles. Totally free. What you ask in return is a support for anti-violence efforts in Chicago. Have you seen any tangible giving back from the readers?

One unique feature on the BSB website, when anybody orders any books (and we’ve had individuals order hundreds of copies), we ask them to tell us why they want them. As a result, we have literally thousands of reader stories, heroic stories, on our website—from prisons, high school teachers in the city, rural areas, all over the world. We definitely see the need. We’ve given away tens of thousands of copies of each of our editions. How Long Will We Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, we’ve given away easily 70,000-80,000; I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War, 50,000. These are big numbers for any press, but especially when you consider that it’s usually pure word of mouth that supports these books. They just take on their own lives. With each book, we include a resource guide in the back of nonprofit organizations working on the subject at hand: veterans’ support organizations, groups working on anti-violence campaigns, etc…the idea is to help readers literally DO something as a result of what they’ve just read.

The introduction begins with a list that The Chicago Tribune crime team compiled of the most recent deaths. The list is anonymous—just date, time, age and gender. The list is startling in that it represents so much death in so short a time and space. What do you make of this anonymity, and what do you think American Gun does to put faces to the violence?

I didn’t ask poets to name names, though a few did so, quite powerfully. Overall, the poem adds a humanity to what is often only presented as abstract data. Every poet in the poem has a different relationship to gun violence. Occasionally, you read a stanza from a poet who has a direct relationship with someone who was shot. Other poets might be removed from the violence, but that doesn’t mean they’re removed psychologically. Poetry gives context and gravity to what’s happening emotionally in our culture. I feel the poem brings people closer to each other—it’s a meditation on something disturbing we feel but would rather not face.

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Don Evans Photo

Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection, An Off-White Christmas. He is founding executive director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He previously interviewed Miles Harvey for ACM.